As the eldest of six children, Marie Hargreaves would watch her mother and father struggle to make ends meet.
In 1958, when she turned five, her mother gave birth to Kathleen, her seventh baby – that’s when life got even harder.
‘Although Mum lived for her children, trying to support us all was slowly killing her too. I was so malnourished, a doctor diagnosed me with rickets,’ she remembers.
Her father worked as a rag-and-bone man. ‘He was poverty-stricken, scruffy and unwashed, illiterate and uneducated, but to me, he was my hero. He made me feel safe,’ she smiles.
One day, when Marie was six, her mum called for help from social services. ‘They came and Mum sat crying, saying she didn’t have enough to feed us. They opened her kitchen cupboard, saw a single Oxo cube and exclaimed, “Of course you can,” and left. That tipped Mum over the edge,’ explains Marie.
The next morning, she and her brother Freddie, the two eldest, were called into the living room. Her dad told them the pair of them were off on a special holiday.
‘Two women came in to take us on the holiday and I was so excited as they looked very well-to-do,’ she recalls.
Marie’s parents gathered the two children’s few possessions, and off they went in the car. Only what was promised as a holiday turned out to be the start of a nightmare.
‘The ladies didn’t say one word to us in the car,’ explains Marie. ‘They just pulled up in front of a large building and dragged us up a huge flight of stone steps, way too big for our tiny legs.
At the door we were met by a nun in a black habit. I got a bad feeling as soon as I saw her and looked around to see if I could grab Freddie’s hand and run. I was surrounded by people, there seemed to be no way out.’
Marie and her brother had been taken to a convent to ease the financial pressure on her parents. The siblings were split up straight away and Marie was taken into a room where she was made to strip.
‘The nun asked a group of 12 and 13-year-old girls to wash me. I was shoved in a bath and they mocked me, stroked me like a cat and told me how cute I was,’ she recollects, squirming. ‘Then I was led to a room where the nun shaved all my hair off.’
Things went from bad to worse as Marie was taken to a dormitory, and saw her horrible living conditions. A dark, damp room, a thin mattress with a sheet and rough pyjamas that scratched her skin.
As she cried on her bed, a girl advised her to stop before the nun came back. And she was right, every time she cried, Marie would be punished by the nuns who were supposed to look after her.
‘Every day we were woken up at 6am and made to scrub the floors. If we missed a spot we’d be beaten. I was so exhausted by breakfast time it felt like my body would collapse,’ she tells us.
A few days in, afraid, confused and desperate to see her brother, Marie plucked up the courage to talk to one of the nuns, Sister Isobel.
‘I mustered up all my courage and said, “Will I be going home today?” Fury flashed across her face and she spat, “You have no home. You are a child of God, Kibby.” “I am not Kibby,” I stuttered, tears streaming down my face and into my cold porridge.
‘I didn’t like being called by my surname. “When can I go home to my family?” I wailed. With a fierce roar she replied, “You have no family and you are not going home!”.’
One day, Marie caught a glimpse of Freddie in another room with the boys – he dashed over and gave her a little kiss on the nose.
Although it gave Marie great comfort, Sister Isobel grabbed her and marched her out of the room – panic rose in her chest as she realised she was in for the worst beating yet.
‘I was half dragged, half carried down the corridor by Sister Isobel and thrown on to a bed in a small room. Four or five girls took it in turns to hold me down while the others punched and scratched at me.
‘I shouted and sobbed but I knew it was pointless. Sister Isobel stood at the door and watched. If they ever thought we were thinking of escaping, the nuns would chain us to our beds,’ she explains.
School was Marie’s only relief, she loved being away from the torture of the nuns. The teachers would ask how she got the bruises but she was too frightened to say.
Every time she protested to the nuns that she wasn’t an orphan, she would be beaten. Until one day, the attacks turned sexual.
‘While I was bullied in the lunch line, Sister Isobel snatched me away and carted me down a corridor. When I landed on the bed I heard the clatter of wooden boards and coat hangers, so I braced myself for a beating. Sister Isobel stood at the door, let a group of older girls in and stood, overseeing and all-seeing,’ she explains tearfully.
‘I cowered on the bed, face down, but the girls flipped me over and pinned my arms by my sides. I screamed as the first few blows hit my chest and legs. But then, to my horror, one of the girls lifted my skirt and began rubbing the coat hanger against my knickers.
‘The others ogled, transfixed, as her hands went into my knickers and I retched, choking on my own vomit, as I was unable to lift my head. “Enough, girls,” Sister Isobel said quietly, more quietly than usual, as she walked away.’
From that day on, Marie was sexually abused most nights by the older girls in her dormitory or as the nuns called it, ‘her cell’.
‘They’d make me touch them too. I felt disgusting.’
To Marie’s horror, the scene Sister Isobel had witnessed with the coat hanger inspired her to do the same. ‘One day she lifted my skirt and pushed my underwear aside. Inside my head, I was raging against it.
‘I could see myself, begging her to stop, but in reality my mouth would not open. I realised at that moment I’d been abandoned by everyone, but I also had abandoned myself.’
Then, when Marie was nine, the best news possible arrived. The convent was mysteriously closing down. ‘I was free.’
When Marie got home, she didn’t want to upset her parents or risk being sent away again, so acted chirpy about her time in the convent.
‘My mum said she was so proud of me,’ she tells us. ‘Freddie returned home and Mum and Dad praised us for helping the family. We were delighted.’
Marie had returned to an extra two siblings. She grew her hair long again and her parents never knew about the abuse, although she says it did put a barrier between them, as she was traumatised by what they had put her through.
Marie married at 18 and had three children – son Lee and twins Michael and Michelle. The marriage failed but she went on to marry her soulmate, Jack, and the couple were happy until his death in 2010.
‘I adored my children… I wanted to make sure they felt loved and safe; something I had never had as a child,’ Marie says.
But Marie suffered with anxiety and flashbacks, and eventually confided in Jack about the physical abuse at the convent – though she felt unable to tell him about the sexual abuse.
In 2015 Marie was contacted by police who were investigating claims of abuse against Sister Isobel and the convent.
‘It was no surprise other kids had suffered at her hands. I told them what I could – but I still couldn’t talk about the sexual abuse. They told me she was going to be held to account, but the next contact I had was to say she had died before she could face the court. It was too late for justice.’
Only upon hearing of Isobel’s death was Marie able to confide in her friends and family about the sexual abuse. Because she publicly spoke out, it enabled many more to come forward and contact her about the abuse they’d suffered at the hands of the same nun.
The charity which set up the convent have launched an investigation and have publicly apologised to all the victims.
Although it’s a weight off her shoulders, Marie will never get over the horror of those three years.
‘It still impacts me,’ she tells us. ‘It’s a hard thing to explain; the self-hatred that you go through. You don’t feel like you belong in the world because of it. It will never, ever go away.’
To read more of Marie’s story, get 10% off Sunday Times Bestseller The Convent (RRP £7.99) with offer code R10. Call 01256 302 699 or order online at Mirrorbooks.co.uk (Free P&P on orders over £15).